Virtual Superheroes Are More Heroic In Real Life

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Participants who experienced the ability to fly in virtual reality were quicker to help in the real world than those who did not possess superpowers.
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"With great power comes great responsibility" is perhaps the most famous -- albeit foreshortened -- phrase in comic book history, attributed to Stan Lee and Steve Ditko's Amazing Fantasy #15, the issue that first introduced the world to Spider-Man.

However, this adage also holds true for virtual superheroes. A recent study found that having superpowers in a virtual world made people more likely to be helpful in real life.

The study, conducted by clinical psychologist Robin Rosenberg and colleagues from Stanford University's Virtual Human Interaction Lab, not only reinforced common superhero tropes, but also showed how using virtual reality experiences can increase pro-social behavior in the physical world, an area researchers say holds vast potential.

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"It's a technology that can be used for good or ill and I'd love to see it used for good," Rosenberg told Discovery News. She's written extensively on the psychology of superheroes in such books as What's The Matter With Batman? and the recently published Superhero Origins.

Jeremy Bailenson, associate professor of communication at Stanford University and founder of the Virtual Human Interaction Lab, says for years he and his colleagues have run virtual reality experiments with a the following assumption always taken as a given: experiences in VR are profound.

"They're intense," said Bailenson, also a co-author on the study. "The consequence with that is that they stay with you after you leave virtual reality. They change your behavior in the physical world."

For the study, 30 female participants and 30 male participants were immersed in a foggy virtual reality city and given the power of flight -- like Superman -- or the experience of riding as a passenger in a helicopter. Those groups were then assigned one of two tasks: help find a missing diabetic child in desperate need of an insulin injection or leisurely tour their virtual environment. Therefore, the study was a two-by-two design, with participants assigned to one of four groups. See a video here.

After their VR experience, participants were taken out of their head-mounted-display masks and asked to have a seat. While the experimenter fumbled with the VR equipment, she "accidentally" knocked over a cup of 15 pens sitting on a table near the participant's chair.

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Researchers found that participants who experienced the power of flight in virtual reality were not only quicker to help pick up the pens than their helicopter-riding counterparts, they also picked up more pens. Of the six participants that didn't help, all were in the helicopter condition. The task of 'helping the diabetic child' showed no main effect; only the superpower of flight did.

"We had two semi-competing hypotheses beforehand. One was that, no matter what the task was, the power of flight would induce pro-social behavior," said Rosenberg. "The competing hypothesis was that being asked to help in VR would be a more powerful effect. And we didn't find that. I thought that was really interesting."

But why? Wouldn't the task of rescuing a lost child spring a superhero into more helpful action?

"The hypothesis we have is that the power of flight, and then whatever unconscious decisions went along with that, in terms of priming or the experience of power, overrode whatever else might have gone on with acting heroic," Rosenberg said.

Rosenberg and colleagues theorized that the participants who were given the ability of flight were likely primed and conditioned by concepts and prototypes commonly associated with superheroes in pop culture. In fact, the findings somewhat resembled the origin stories of many a superhero.

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Rosenberg shared the results with Paul Levitz, former DC Comics publisher and president, and comic book editor and writer. She asked him if he had any thoughts.

"Mr. Levitz noted that people familiar with superhero tropes implicitly know that after a character discovers a new-found superpower, the character's task is to decide how to use it -- for personal gain or for the greater good," the paper explains.

Rosenberg added: "I think there is something there. Anyone who has any familiarity with any superhero film, any TV show or Saturday morning cartoon -- you don't even have to read comic books. The key point is that powers don't make a superhero. It's about what you choose to do with them."

As it so happened, that do-good choice spilled over from the virtual realm into the real world.

"What Levitz was getting at is that we gave people the power of flight," said Rosenberg. "It didn't matter what" task "we gave them to do, it was that they were unconsciously aware of 'how would I go about the world if I had this power.'"

Researchers said the study was one of the first to examine the effects of pro-social behavior in virtual reality and the pro-social effects of embodying a superpower. Findings of the study were published in the journal PLOS One.

Virtual reality's pro-social potential, Rosenberg says, carries many interesting applications for society.

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